Sunday October 3rd, 2010

PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take stock of a bevy of hotly contested Week 4 games while watching the unfolding McNabb Bowl at Lincoln Financial Field ...

• Not to put too fine a point on it, but everywhere the Baltimore Ravens hope to go this season started with that crucial 17-14 comeback win at Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon. It wasn't pretty, but the Ravens found a way to win in a stadium where they almost never succeed (nine losses in their last 10 games at Heinz Field), and now their season and Super Bowl dreams are both very much alive.

Let's face it, Baltimore absolutely had to have this one. If the Ravens had started 2-2 and already trailed the Steelers by two full games and a head-to-head tiebreaker just a month into the season, they would have been closer to pretenders than contenders in the AFC. Especially since Pittsburgh would have been 4-0 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger stepping on the field, and Baltimore would have already dropped a pair of road division games to the Bengals and Steelers, the two teams that have had their number in recent seasons.

But now, at 3-1, and having knocked the Steelers from the ranks of the unbeaten, the Ravens are tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North and actually hold the edge thanks to their head-to-head win. That's a huge swing of momentum Baltimore's way, and I expect the Ravens to build on it as they approach the guts of their schedule. With wins at the Jets and Steelers already under their belts, the Ravens have beaten a pair of likely AFC playoff qualifiers and now get to play five of their next eight games at home, without returning to division play until hosting the Steelers in early December. Oh, and did we mention the Bengals lost 23-20 at Cleveland on Sunday, sinking to 2-2 and third place in the division?

The comeback win was also a significant hurdle cleared for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, whose play has been surprisingly uneven at times this season. Flacco needed the confidence boost of leading a final-minute, game-winning drive and got the job done when he hit receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh from 18 yards out with just 32 seconds remaining. That score wiped out the frustration of Baltimore not punching the ball in from the Steelers' 2 with just more than 2 minutes remaining, thanks to a strong Pittsburgh stand. Flacco finished a decent 24-of-37 for 256 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and an 82.7 passer rating. He completed passes to seven receivers.

The Steelers obviously can't be too disappointed to go 3-1 during Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, but a win on Sunday would have given Mike Tomlin's club an early-season stranglehold on the division and sent it into next week's bye on an emotional high. Now that high belongs to Baltimore, where the Ravens, by an eyelash, might have stamped themselves as the team to beat in the AFC.

Josh Scobee hits a 59-yard field goal for Jacksonville, and that 31-28 Jags upset of the Colts might be the job-saver that Jack Del Rio needed to last the entire season. Jacksonville got back to .500 with the win, and for now all talk about Del Rio's job security got shoved to the back burner.

While we're at it, David Garrard probably bought himself another couple games as the Jaguars starting quarterback with his best game in weeks: 17 of 22, for 163 yards and two touchdowns.

• A month into the NFL's regular season, honesty compels me to admit I was utterly wrong about LaDainian Tomlinson's chances for a late-career renaissance with the Jets. I thought L.T. started to hit that post-30 wall as a running back last year in San Diego, and moving to the East Coast wasn't going to turn back the clock in any significant way.

But it has, and Tomlinson clearly has some juice left in those legs. In a 38-14 win at Buffalo, Tomlinson looked as elusive as ever, running for 133 yards and a pair of touchdowns (1 and 26 yards) and adding three catches for 22 yards. It was the 47th 100-yard rushing game of L.T.'s 10-year career, and the first time he had cracked triple digits since running for 105 yards in October 2008.

Tomlinson is running with something to prove this season, and the Jets are benefiting. With both Tomlinson and second-year back Shonn Greene (22 carries for 117 yards) posting 100-yard games against the Bills, New York ran for a whopping 273 yards, or 102 more than it had passing. The Jets averaged 5.6 yards per carry against out-matched Buffalo, looking every bit the ground-and-pound team head coach Rex Ryan loves to field.

Through four games, L.T. has rushed for 341 yards on just 56 carries, an eye-opening 6.1 per rush. That'll get it done. Especially since he's starting to add the big gainer to his repertoire. Tomlinson both opened and closed New York's scoring against the Bills, burrowing in from one yard out in the first quarter, and breaking off a 26-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.

• Don't look now, but the Jets just blew through the entire AFC East over the course of the past three weeks, beating the Patriots, Dolphins and Bills in fairly convincing fashion. It's New York's first 3-0 start in the division since 2000, and the Jets don't have to worry about another game against an AFC East opponent until Week 13, when they travel to Foxboro.

And one more sobering caveat for Jets haters: They're about to get Santonio Holmes (suspension), Darrelle Revis (injury) and Calvin Pace (foot) back in the lineup in the coming days.

Maybe for once the hype was right.

• Tomlinson wasn't the only old guy to have a big Week 4. Saints 46-year-old kicker John Carney came off the street to nail three field goals as New Orleans staved off Carolina's upset bid, 16-14, and in Cleveland, Bengals receiver Terrell Owens, 36, turned in 10 catches for 220 yards and a touchdown in a 23-20 loss to the Browns.

• Just asking, but when exactly will Steelers kicker Jeff Reed start feeling a little job insecurity in the wake of missing a couple more field goals, this time in the loss to the Ravens? Reed is now just 8-of-12 on the year, and he missed a couple tries in Pittsburgh's 15-9 season-opening overtime win against Atlanta -- an extra period the Steelers maybe wouldn't have found necessary if Reed had converted.

I know Heinz Field is the Bermuda Triangle for NFL kickers, but Reed has made just three of seven field goals at home this season, and that's usually a very bad career move. Reed missed only four field goals at home all of last season.

• What a unforgivable brain cramp by 49ers cornerback Nate Clements on that potentially game-sealing interception in Atlanta. No matter how many times players see the ball punched loose from behind, so many of them still refuse to anticipate the strip move and wrap up the ball.

Falcons receiver Roddy White, not giving up on the play, ran down Clements from behind after Clements had intercepted Matt Ryan with just 1:37 left in the game. Clements, a veteran who should know better, had the ball punched loose from behind, where it was recovered by Falcons guard Harvey Dahl at the Atlanta 7. The Falcons then resumed their game-winning field goal drive and beat winless San Francisco on Matt Bryant's 43-yarder with 2 seconds remaining.

And the 49ers season of self-destruction continues unabated.

• Line of the day: Laurence Maroney: 11 carries for five yards, with a long gain of eight yards for Denver. The Broncos simply can't run at all, and remember when it was Denver that set the standard in the NFL when it came to rushing games? The Broncos used to churn out 1,000-yard rushers like no one else.

But in a 26-20 upset win at Tennessee on Sunday, the Broncos ran 20 times for 19 yards, with quarterback Kyle Orton leading the team with 11 yards on three scrambles. Denver threw the ball a whopping 50 times, with Orton continuing to have a tremendous season in Josh McDaniels' offense.

But Orton's 341 yards passing came with a downside: He was hit repeatedly and sacked six times by Tennessee. As good as he's playing, Orton won't last the season if he has to take that kind of pounding due to the lack of a Denver running game. And I'm guessing McDaniels knows that.

• Let's settle down there, Chuck Cecil. There's no cause for the Titans fiery defensive coordinator to engage in finger-pointing at the game officials. Especially when he's using his middle finger, a la Titans owner Bud Adams. That'll cost him some money later this week.

• Carolina receiver Steve Smith can deny again this week that there are any issues between him and rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, but it certainly looks like the two aren't on the same page. Smith seemed to be frustrated with Clausen's grasp of play-clock management at one point in the loss to New Orleans, and even called his own timeout before one Carolina snap when he saw Clausen was about to let time expire. Smith suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter against the Saints and reportedly left the locker room with his left foot in an air cast.

• It didn't help produce a victory for the Seahawks, but Seattle rookie safety Earl Thomas is really starting to make an impact. Thomas picked off Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the end zone in the second quarter on Sunday, after totaling two interceptions last week in an upset of San Diego.

Thomas, the 14th overall pick in the draft last April, read Bradford's eyes as the quarterback locked in on receiver Mark Clayton. Thomas, the ex-Texas Longhorn, used to cause Bradford trouble when the pair met annually in the Texas-Oklahoma game. Maybe Thomas' pick of Bradford makes up a little for the Sooners' win over the Longhorns in Saturday's Red River Rivalry.

• With a touchdown in a third consecutive game, Braylon Edwards all of a sudden looks like a playmaker again, doesn't he? The Jets' in-the-news receiver had a team-best four catches for 86 yards in the rout of the Bills, and his 41-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter helped blow the game open.

Amazing how the final year of your contract can help focus a player's mind and game.

• Can you believe the Browns got running back Peyton Hillis in exchange for the little-used Brady Quinn? Hillis has rushed for 246 yards and a pair of touchdowns the past two weeks, and against Cincinnati on Sunday his 102 yards and one score helped the Browns become the only 0-3 club to win in Week 4. I think Cleveland would take deals like Hillis for Quinn all day long.

• We might all overdose on Michael Vick coverage at some point in the coming weeks, but what a revealing and eye-opening interview ex-Falcons head coach Jim Mora did with Vick, his former Atlanta quarterback, on the NFL Network. "My whole life was a lie, Jim,'' Vick told Mora. "Everything from A to Z.''

Now that's a sound bite.

• If anyone out there has the 2-2 Seahawks figured out, let me know. Are they the team that dismantled San Francisco and upset San Diego, or the club that looked bad in losing to Denver and St. Louis?

Maybe it's as simple as this: Seattle's a pretty brutal road team and a pretty good club at home.

• I don't really know what to think about the Packers, my pick for NFC champions, either. Green Bay (3-1) looks like the kind of team that can't really stand prosperity, and believes it can just turn it on and off at its own discretion. The Packers' 28-26 conquest of Detroit was one of those wins that almost feels like a loss, because Green Bay couldn't put the winless Lions (0-4) away all day.

Aaron Rodgers threw a couple more interceptions for the Packers, giving him five already this season, in just four games. Rodgers tossed only seven interceptions all of last year. And the Lions offense marched up and down the field against Green Bay's defense, totaling 431 yards and 24 first downs.

• The Rams (2-2) are clearly a much improved team, and have already doubled their 2009 win total through the season's first four weeks. That's what quality quarterbacking can do for an entire team, make it instantly competitive. Bradford has my NFL Offensive Rookie of Year vote so far. As good as Detroit running back Jahvid Best has been, Bradford has been as advertised.

St. Louis just won back-to-back home games (against Washington and Seattle) for the first time since 2006, and consecutive games anywhere since 2008.

• The Saints got to 3-1 with that squeaker over Carolina, but the defending champs sure look sloppy these days. There are way too many dropped passes in New Orleans, and the ball security exhibited by the Saints is almost laughable. It looks like very little is going to come easily for New Orleans this year, and Sean Payton's club is being forced to win on the strength of its defense for a change.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.